Why It Matters If You Once Dreamed Of Being An Astronaut

And other wisdom from career coach Dr. Colleen Campbell

The Martian

I first met Dr. Colleen Campbell almost a decade ago when we both were enrolled in a business skills class for women: me, for a dying jewelry business I would soon put out of its misery, and Colleen, then finishing her doctoral dissertation in clinical psychology, in anticipation of opening a private practice.

We drifted out of touch but, recently, when my husband was wrestling with some career questions of his own, she popped up again on my radar. In the years since I’d last seen her, Dr. Campbell had grown her practice into a thriving coaching business, the Ignite Your Potential Center, with coaches in San Francisco and Santa Monica that work with clients on making change in their lives, particularly around work and career. I was curious to hear Dr. Campbell’s perspective on why and how people make big changes in their careers, about what makes a job a good fit, and about the value of money when it comes to choosing a career. Just as I remembered her, Dr. Campbell was warm, insightful, and incredibly generous in sharing her perspective and advice on these topics.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You background is in clinical psychology and family therapy. What made you interested in coaching people around career and work?

People would often say in my field, you need to find a niche, and for a while I resisted because I enjoy working with a wide range of people, and I thought, “Let me do this for a while, work with a wide range of people and see, organically, how this evolves.” I took on different topics with life coaching, began doing a little bit of career coaching, and it just evolved to be a really good fit for me. It’s funny because what I help people with often is finding a good fit in their career.

When I was a kid, I remember my parents saying, “You don’t have to like your job, it’s just something that you do to make money for your family,” and I resisted that. Even then, I was like, “Eh, I don’t know about that.” I don’t believe it has to be that way. And so in pursuit of my own right fit, I [ended up doing career coaching].

I also liked assessments, like the Myers and Briggs and the Strengths Finder. I find it neat to have this combination of abstract conversation but also action and something structured and grounded that you can hold onto, so that was a natural flow into career work. I find it’s useful, even if someone is working on relationships, to look at who they are, their strengths, their personality, their values. I think self-awareness is always going to help with whatever goals you are setting, but in career it’s particularly useful.

What does a good fit mean? How does one find a good fit in a career?

Most people have a sense about it, especially when something is not working. Let’s say, for example, someone prefers introversion, so gets energy from reflection and having time to think things through and mental practice, and then they’re in a job where it’s 90% collaboration with other people in an open work space. They’re going to feel drained, and sometimes they’ll know why and sometimes they won’t. So when I think of fit, I think about the maximum amount of data points meeting up. It’s sort of like compatibility in a relationship. Of course there’s compromise but there has to be a number of things, including chemistry, that line up.

So, looking at someone’s personality and strengths and values; then we move to create a career criteria, a holistic list of things that need to be in place for them to thrive. And these can be high-level, abstract things, like maybe they like companies that are making an impact on people, all the way to details, like what does the work day look like. Then we use this to figure out what would be a good fit for them.

A good fit means that your job is giving you energy and not draining you. What I find is that some people are pretty close, with a bunch of ideas, but maybe have a few blind spots. And then for other people it can be really extreme. Maybe they were influenced by their family and they’re a therapist-type persona and they are an accountant. The longer they do that, they’ll come to me demoralized, burnt out, feeling like they are working really hard to be average. It’s sad.

It’s so exciting to go through the process as someone lights up and says, “Oh, it’s not that there’s something wrong with me, it’s just that I wasn’t in quite the right fit.”

How does money fit into the discussion? When people are looking for good fit, how much value do you assign to salaries and potential earnings?

That’s a great question, and it’s one of the criteria that we take into consideration when thinking of good fit. It varies. There are outliers where it doesn’t matter at all, it’s irrelevant for a variety of reasons, and they have other things that are more important. More frequently, I’m asking, “What is the range?” As we go forward and come up with ideas, we have to vet them against that list [of criteria]. There are jobs … for example, photography. I have worked with professional photographers, and it is not an easy road to hoe. It can be done, absolutely, but it’s something to be considered that there might be more of an ebb and flow in certain careers and the money they bring in, so its definitely part of the conversation.

And then there’s opportunity costs. For some people, because they have families or just because it doesn’t make sense for them to lose income, they are not open to taking time off and going to a class or making a big investment. They want to find the easiest pivot point from where they stand. Everybody I work with will look at, OK, what are the easiest moves from where I stand? Even if someone is not interested in that, I still want to map it out, so that if we close those doors, we can do it mindfully. If we look at the easiest pivot points, we go out [from there].

Sometimes I even have people listing things they dreamed about when they were kids. They’re probably not going to become an astronaut, but I want it on the list because it’s a clue. Why would you choose that? An astronaut is an archetype, so what is a good fit that is actually in range? So yeah, it is an important piece for people. You know, the investment of going back to school, even getting an MBA, you have to look at the cost of that, including the time off work.

They’re probably not going to become an astronaut, but I want it on the list because it’s a clue. Why would you choose that? An astronaut is an archetype, so what is a good fit that is actually in range?

I’m so curious about how money and fit go together.

It’s a compromise. Sometimes we’re in places in our life where people make a huge mid-career shift, where people are researching schools and programs to go in a whole different direction. I have a client with a master’s degree who is working in a really meaningful career in public health but has always wanted to be a doctor, so that’s the pivot were talking about, going to med school. That’s huge. That’s less common, but for some people the fire inside them about that idea is much greater than any practical side of money. And for others that’s just not something they would consider because it is just too financially risky. So it’s pretty individual but it definitely comes up with every client that I have

Do people ever come wondering if a passion could be a job or a business? Have you ever encouraged someone to keep it as a hobby?

I don’t have a bias. I’m not the one to be like, “Oh, be careful!” I want to be someone’s advocate. That said, I do believe it’s important to follow those passions. I’ve seen both happen. I’ve seen those who are captured by [their passion] and want to go in that direction and develop it. But we do talk about the practical side. For example, if someone is an artist and they want to go back and get a Master’s in art because that’s what they want to do, we do look at the long term. What does it look like when you come out? Are you starting your own business? Are you talking to gallery owners? Is this actually a fit for you? Going to school, for art or law or anything, is totally different from working in that field.

Going to school, for art or law or anything, is totally different from working in that field.

So I don’t want to have a client go back to school and then on the other side be on the exact same position as when they started. Sometimes going to school can be almost a relief, like a way away from the problem, especially if you are someone who likes to learn. So we definitely look at that and consider that. Is that a fit? Does it make sense?

But I have had people where when we look at their whole career criteria, we find that the passion doesn’t quite fit. Somebody might dream of being an entrepreneur but maybe they have major focus problems and its hard for them to stay on track by themselves. We also consider the possibility of something creative like, Could you work with a partner? Could you outsource certain things, or have an assistant who is checking in with you, keeping you on track? It’s not black or white.

I have definitely seen people make a hobby out of their passion. Maybe they are quite deep into a career, say, as a lawyer, and they’ve had some frustrations. Our work sometimes ends up having them not go into a new career but tweak their career, maybe shift into a different firm or maybe develop a hobby once they have a better work life balance. Sometimes my solutions for clients end up being more subtle than a whole career shift.

What are some common obstacles people have in making career changes once someone has a sense that they are not happy going down the road they’re headed down? I imagine the people you see are somewhat self-selecting in that they have already taken the step of seeking out your services.

That’s often the case. It does take a lot of courage to start the process. Most of the time, my clients don’t struggle a lot with that, [but] the times that I find are the most challenging is how long a person has been doing something they don’t like. [To use] the example of a therapist type person doing accounting, if someone has been doing that for ten, fifteen years, they’re burnt to a crisp when they see me. They feel burnt out, demoralized, and cruddy about themselves, and maybe are even in a depression. That’s where someone really might have trouble [making a change]. Or, if someone’s in a toxic work environment, they might need to leave the job in order to fully complete our work. As you can imagine, [a toxic work environment] is like a bad relationship. Sometimes it’s just keeping them down and they’re having trouble seeing the possibilities, feeling good, and making change.

But most of the time, people are ready [to make a change] by the time we work together. Usually, they’ve been thinking about change for a year or two, knowing that what they’re doing isn’t quite right but hopefully isn’t horrible. Again, we’re talking about when people make a big change, but there are a good percentage of clients who where [the goal is] tweaking. Where they realize, “I’m a little burnt out because I’m not making enough money because I haven’t negotiated my salary ever,” so then we talk about what they want and how they negotiate it, or how to negotiate a title change. So sometimes it’s about tweaking and refining what they have going on currently, and maybe they weren’t advocating for themselves enough.

That’s interesting. I came in thinking you were mostly going to be talking about people making huge, dramatic changes, but it sounds like for many people, the goal is get more [happiness, money, success] out of smaller tweaks.

Yeah, for some people [that’s true]. Like, if we’re looking at their personality and their strengths and I’m thinking, “Wow, your job is actually a pretty good fit for you,” there still can be reason why they need or want to make a change, but then we start to look a little deeper. Maybe they didn’t really acknowledge that their boss is a bad fit for them. Not a bad person or anything but just their style is not a good fit.

Some people have a trait called “significance” where they need to be acknowledged — meaningful acknowledgement, not just empty acknowledgements. If they have a boss who just doesn’t do that ever and there’s no review system, it’s like a hole in their bucket, just leaking out. So we have to figure out, how do they negotiate and tell their boss? How do they teach their boss how to treat them, and say, “Hey, I actually need this, this is like fuel to me?” Or maybe it’s a matter of changing jobs but staying in the same field.

Some people have a trait called “significance,” where they need to be acknowledged. If they have a boss who just doesn’t do that ever and there’s no review system, it’s like a hole in their bucket, leaking out.

As I interview them, I have a lot of clients who then take their career criteria into the interview process. Like, “here is what I need, take me through your review process, what do you do with your employees every year.” So they are advocating for themselves to make sure they are going to get what they need, instead of just hoping.

I imagine that even knowing what it is you need might sometimes be a blind spot and that someone might not know what they are missing or what they need to be satisfied.

Totally. I often use the analogy of dating because there are so many similarities. For most of us, not everybody, you don’t know when you are 16 or whatever, like, “This is really what works for me.” And then it’s this trial and error and you realize, “That really doesn’t work.” And if you’re lucky you’re collecting these things.

But it takes time for some people to find all of the different things that really mean a lot or are really important that they need in that type of relationship, and work is the same way. Some people get lucky. Maybe intuitively they know, or somehow they get into that right fit. But others, they can have great jobs [and still not have a good fit]. I’ve seen many times where other people admire them, they’re working at the best companies and they just don’t feel not fulfilled and are bummed out about it.

So we are detectives, figuring out what are those pieces that you don’t realize are missing.

And sometimes people can be attached to an idea they had when they were younger, and it can be hard to let go of that even when it is not really who you are anymore.

It’s a great point. We evolve a lot. Having children can affect us, our energy levels [can change]. Talking about finances, a person might not really care about that until they’re like 35, 40 and then feel like, “Whoa, this is an important thing I need to address to feel like I’m successful or I’m functioning high,” not that they’re not making money but maybe how they’re spending it. We do change. Even personality-wise, the theory says that our personalities don’t change. But Carl Jung, whose theories the Myers and Briggs is built on, says if we’re healthy we do start to stretch and bring in different aspects that weren’t there before. Someone who is introverted might have some extroverted activities and build on that a little bit. We can all change.

I’m curious if your coaching experience has led you to re-think your own ideas about work and money in new ways.

I am on the Myers and Briggs an extrovert. I’m a little close to the midline, so not a classic strong extrovert. But since having my son, and maybe in some ways since having my business, I definitely am showing up more and more as preferring introversion. My energy is different. In the beginning, I did a lot of networking. But now, for whatever reason, I do less and less. I love talking to people, but now I’m finding that a bit draining. Like we were talking about tweaking, it’s been more [about small changes and] being present enough to notice when changes are needed and then making them. I have a lot of energy and so sometimes my stamina is strong and I work a lot, and there are also times when I realize I need to pull back and make adjustments. But you know, I think I’ve been able to develop a really good fit for myself. I like getting to work with a variety of different people and work helping them. It feels exciting to help people activate their dreams.

What advice would you give someone who knows they are unhappy in their work and is just starting to realize they need to make a change?

I like to share with someone the lay of the land. For a lot of people, the moment you make that decision — say you are sitting at work and saying this is not working for me anymore — the moment that comes into your mind, you don’t know what is going to happen in the future. Before you had a plan; now you don’t know. And I like to just acknowledge that that can be discombobulating. If we don’t know what next year is going to look like at all, that’s a transition, and transitions can make you feel unmoored. So just to name that, it doesn’t have to be a negative thing, you can just almost coach yourself that this is normal, it’s normal that I might feel whatever — fill in the blank: anxiety, confusion, a little nervous — and it’s just important to acknowledge that that doesn’t have to mean anything negative. It’s normal. Just like the work I do for people can be fun and interesting and exciting, it can feel nerve wracking to not quite know.

Also, of course I’m a little biased here, but it’s important to know that if you need assistance, it can be helpful for most people. It’s a good investment to make. There are times when you want to make an investment in order to have a bigger payoff and so it’s a worthy thing to get support around. I think it makes [making a change] more efficient, helps you move through your process much quicker. I’ve seen people who have told me they’ve been working on this on their own for years, and we could go through a process in 2–4 months working every other week together. Even if that’s not working with someone like me, even if the investment is more, “I’m going to dedicate an hour or two a week that I carve out to sit down and figure this out and create an action plan with steps for myself,” that it’s worthy of more than just thought and it’s not going to magically get itself solved.

And then when someone is working on their own I recommend taking a moment and forgetting about the problem or the challenge and thinking about who they are. It could be useful to do the Myers and Briggs. The Strengths Finder can be useful, [as is] a book called Do What You Are that is based on the Myers and Briggs. You can go online and find some values work. There are some good books — What Color is my Parachute? is one. Spend a little time to dig a little deeper and then come back to the questions that are challenging.

One book that can be especially useful for women, though it can be useful for men, too, is Linda Babcock’s book Ask for It. It’s a great book about figuring out what you want and negotiating for it both personally and professionally.

What should someone be looking for if they do want to hire a coach? What questions should they be asking?

Coaching is unregulated and anyone could take a weekend coaching course, hang out a shingle and call themselves a coach. I think that it can be smart to ask questions or find out about their background. Hopefully they have a Linked In Profile that shares where they’ve gone to school and what they’ve studied. Yelp can be a great resource to read reviews. What I like about it is that you can read different points of view, different personalities describing what they thought was helpful. My hope is that a lot of coaches will give a complimentary session of half an hour on the phone which gives you a chance to ask some questions and figure out what your objectives are, find out have if they worked with someone who has gone through that. If someone is a big picture thinker they might feel good about the connection they had with the coach and not ask about the details. Some coaches will help someone find a good fit but not take them through the strategy of how to get there.

Having experience with industry can be important but it is also personal connection, your styles are close enough, you want to feel good and be able to open up and feel comfortable that the person can acknowledge both the concrete and the abstract, both the big picture and the concrete day to day. It’s good to ask them how many years they’ve been doing it. You know, the way I think about it is we have both a structure — the structure is like holding someone as they go through this — and also we have amore organic way of bringing someone through it conversation. I think both of those are important so that can be a good question, “What is the structure of this process? [You could ask] Explain to me how this is customized to me and explain to me how this is structured.”

Joanna Petrone is a writer and teacher in the Bay Area.

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